Terri Schiavo, the woman at the center of a nationwide debate over right-to-die decisions, died today at a Florida hospice following the March 18 removal of the feeding tube that kept her alive. She was 41 years old.
The Schiavo case, as it came to be known, centered on a dispute between Schiavo's husband, Michael, and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, over the removal of her feeding tube. Michael Schiavo sought to have the tube removed, but her parents repeatedly fought to continue treatment.
Michael Schiavo was cradling his wife when she died around 9 a.m., said his lawyer, George Felos. The lawyer said Michael felt "profound emotion and loss" at Terri's death.
The bitterness between her husband and her parents continued up until the very end. According to one of the Schindlers' spiritual advisers, Michael said he did not want Terri's parents in the room for her final moments.
"And so his heartless cruelty continues until this very last moment," the Rev. Frank Pavone said. "This is not only a death, with all the sadness that brings, but this is a killing, and for that we not only grieve that Terri has passed but we grieve that our nation has allowed such an atrocity as this and we pray that it will never happen again."
Felos offered a different account of Terri's final hours. He said hospice officials asked her brother and sister to heave her room after they spent nearly two hours with her early this morning. The lawyer said Terri Schiavo's brother, Bobby Schindler, wanted to stay in the room with Michael Schiavo and a police officer, but Michael asked him to leave because he did not want a "potentially explosive situation."
"Mr. Schiavo's overriding concern here was to provide for Terri a peaceful death with dignity," Felos said.
Heart Failure, Followed by Years of Court Battles
Terri received a feeding tube in 1990 after she suffered heart failure that caused severe brain damage, leaving her in a persistent vegetative state. PVS is characterized by periods of wakefulness with no apparent awareness or response to any stimulus.
Her death ends a bitter legal struggle that dragged on for seven years as Michael Schiavo sought to have his wife's feeding tube removed, saying she would not want to live in a vegetative state, and her parents fought to keep her alive. The feeding tube was disconnected twice before, but her parents were able to get the courts to order it reinserted. When it was removed a third time, on March 18, after the Florida judge handling the case ruled again that Michael's wishes should be followed, the Schinders' desperate efforts failed.
The U.S. Congress even got involved, passing a law intending to allow federal courts to weigh in, but federal justices in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court were unmoved.
Both federal courts rejected last-minute appeals from the Schindlers to intervene and order the feeding tube reinserted.
The woman's situation drew protesters to the Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice where Schiavo spent her last years. During her final 13 days there was a nonstop vigil, with demonstrators vilifying Michael Schiavo and the courts, and calling on politicians to intervene.
When word of her death reached the demonstrators, many of them burst into tears.
Reaction from many of the politicians who had supported the Schindlers' efforts to get the feeding tube reinserted came quickly.
President Bush opened an event scheduled for him to comment on the release of a presidential commission report on intelligence gathering with a statement of condolence.
"Today, millions of Americans are saddened by the death of Terri Schiavo," he said. "Laura and I extend our condolences to Terri Schiavo's families. I appreciate the example of grace and dignity they have displayed at a difficult time. I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life."
The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who had sought to have the state's department of social services take custody of Terri Schiavo away from her husband, also said he hoped the woman's life would spur change in how the nation deals with such cases.
"After an extraordinarily difficult and tragic journey, Terri Schiavo is at rest," he said. "I remain convinced, however, that Terri's death is a window through which we can see the many issues left unresolved in our families and in our society. For that, we can be thankful for all that the life of Terri Schiavo has taught us."
Though the most vocal demonstrators and politicians drawn to the case wanted the government and the courts to get involved, polls have found that most Americans felt that the courts were right to leave the decision in the hands of Michael Schiavo.
A Shy, Quiet Girl
Theresa Marie Schindler was born Dec. 3, 1963, into a Roman Catholic household in the comfortable, middle-class Philadelphia suburb of Huntingdon Valley. The oldest of three children, she grew to be a shy, quiet girl who kept a menagerie of stuffed animals in her bedroom.
Though she was heavy as a teenager, Terri lost a significant amount of weight before entering Bucks County Community College in 1981. It was there she met Michael Schiavo, her first boyfriend.
The pair married in 1984 in a wedding with some 300 attendees. Two years later, they moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., and lived in a condominium owned by the Schinders.
Though the Schiavos' relationship was described by some as agreeable, there were conflicting reports that portrayed the couple as argumentative and unhappy.
There were also unconfirmed reports that Terri continued to struggle with her weight, suffered from an eating disorder and had menstrual problems. The Schiavos had no children.
On Feb. 25, 1990, Terri suffered heart failure that might have been the result of a potassium imbalance associated with an eating disorder. She entered PVS shortly thereafter, and her condition remained unchanged until her death.